I said it yesterday and I'll say it again: Taro Aso is the next Prime Minister, and his administration will last beyond the next regular Diet session till next August at the earliest. (Actually, I said September, but I look up the law, and I changed my mind, okay?)
Why Mr. Aso, who did not get his own micro-faction until he was in his sixties? Why a moderately engaging public speaker but also one who has been known to come forth with multiple verbal gaffes of not-quite "baby-birthing machine" proportions? The purported hawk who, as Foreign Minister, talked openly about conceding half the Northern Territories to Russia as a negotiations starter? There are good reasons why people have had a hard time taking him seriously as head of government material, even as he has scaled the highest echelons of the coalition government and the LDP party hierarchy; and why they, including the media, are not quite ready to concede the race to him. (The media do have an added interest in making this a real race, but that's beside the point here.)
First of all, the race will be conducted among the usual suspects. No Koizumi-type outliers will emerge as a serious candidate. The truncated, emergency selection process bypasses the normal popular vote by registered party members and puts the decision squarely in the hands of regional ward chiefs and Diet members. Not exactly smoke-filled room, it nevertheless rules out any possibility of the likes of Yoichi Masuzoe (who has anyway been torched mercilessly by the tabloid media for his purportedly prolific sexual achievements of past) being crowned by popular acclaim.
So let's take a look at the usual suspects. Yasuo Fukuda, Kaoru Yosano, and Fukushiro Nukaga are the most frequently quoted names, other than Sadakazu Tanigaki, whom I will get to later. In fact, they are almost, though not quite, the only ones being talked about.
The three men are safe choices, and you may have noticed that I have a thing for Mr. Yosano's hobbit-like charm. I also have warm feelings for Mr. Fukuda, partly from a fleeting look I had that showed him at his unassuming, considerate best. I have little feel for what Mr. Nukaga is like, but he seems to be a steady if unspectacular personage himself. But it is notable that none of them, all in their mid- to late-sixties, lead a faction. (In fact, Mr. Yosano doesn't even belong to one, which means he won't have a institutional power base to help him round up votes.) Choose one of the three, and you choose safety. Yes, safety over leadership, which was so damagingly absent in Mr. Abe.
And then there's Sadakazu Tanigaki, with his own micro-faction. Which brings me to my second point. Mr. Tanigaki shares another distinction with Mr. Mr. Aso: the pair actually ran for LDP president last time around against impossible odds. Believe it or not, this confers a certain measure of political legitimacy that is missing in the three did-not-runs. This is a matter of no small importance as the now chaotic, drifting LDP looks for someone to take the helm. This gives the pair an edge over all other candidates. Unfortunately for Mr. Tanigaki, his combination of overtly MOF-friendly fiscal conservatism and soft-walk, small-stick diplomacy will not allow him to gather the necessary votes to overtake Mr. Aso.
As for other possibilities, Nobutaka Machimura is one of the smarter and nicer people I got to know in METI, where he is from. But he is more of a caretaker than leader as the nominal head of the Machimura faction, and he has never ran for LDP president either. Besides, four successive PMs seem a little too much for the other factions to bear. He will not stand, and will not be elected if he does. There's always the Koizumi card, but he won't run either. I can't quite put my finger on it; it just feels so wrong. On what basis can he run? And what about his many, very real enemies? It goes against his formidable sense of political theater.
And that leaves Mr. Aso.
Why do I think that an Aso administration will last through next summer? Simply put, I don't see any advantages for Mr. Aso in calling for an early election. Either the Aso administration will prove unpopular, which means that they'll lose at least a very goodly portion of their Lower House seats, which is a truly stupid thing to do; or it will prove mildly popular, in which case they will still lose some seats and still leave the Upper House in opposition hands. As a matter of pure logic, it is not impossible that the Aso administration will prove so popular that and Mr. Aso decides that he wants a renewed mandate through a new election. I don't see how that can come to pass. Still, he will need an incredibly successful regular Diet session that requires a substantial extension to get things done in a split Diet. This at a minimum will take it very deep into June and likely some point in July, before the Lower House can be dissolved, after which Mr. Abe will have to wait a minimum of 24 days before the ensuing general election can be held. that should take us to August.
The problem with these predictions is that anything can happen in politics, as we have just seen in Mr. Abe's sudden resignation. Leaders fall ill, leaders die, and sex scandals explode, any of these of these things can happen to Mr. Aso as well within the month. Who knows, Mr. Koizumi might throw his hat in the ring after all. Beyond that, the economy might tank sooner rather than later.
And I could be just a plain, garden-variety of dead wrong. In which case, you'll understand why I'm not being paid to write this stuff. Unlike this precocious whippersnapper here.